I went to hear Sir Tom Stoppard speak this morning at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. I usually come away from such a session with my notes in my head, confident that I can do a reasonable précis from memory. Stoppard taken aurally is as densely packed as Stoppard in print. Each memorable statement (as one thinks of it as he speaks) is immediately overtaken by the next, and most were lost to me by the time he finished.
A few points stuck in my mind as I wandered homeward – can one better, by the way, being in Oxford on a day when deep snow had fallen overnight, Stoppard had talked, and the sun shone on stone buildings from a brilliant blue sky? One could forget, temporarily at least, the Brown unpleasant land around one.
One of my recollections is in fact a message from Tom Stoppard to Gordon Brown. The context is the fading power of cultural references as our culture is diluted and education declines. In Travesties, first performed in 1974, appears the line “You were a wonderful Goneril at Eton”. When that was first performed, Stoppard said, roughly 80% of the audiences understood the reference and laughed. When the play was perfomed 15 years later, only 20% appeared to get it.
Stoppard was presumably not blaming Brown personally for the decline in structured education over that period, since it was before Labour’s time in office. The pace has, however, accelerated beyond measuring, and perhaps beyond repair, under New Labour. We have pulled up our culture by the roots in the pursuit of alleged “relevance”, to say nothing of a deliberate running down of English culture in favour of a bland multiculturalism. We have become a battery people, a people of under-privileged hearts fed on pap in darkness, bred out of all taste and season to savour the shoddy splendours of the new civility as my other favourite playwright, Alan Bennett, put in in 40 Years On – and that was forty years ago. I doubt that the Children’s Secretary, the ghastly Ed Balls, has a clue who Goneril is.
I digress, and perhaps it is part of Stoppard’s genius, like Alan Bennett’s, that he can in a few words encapsulate exactly – you discover – what you feel, love or hate about something. If that ability shames the rest of us who live by what we say and write, then what he said about the process of writing offered some consolation. Even a genius, we learned, has to work for his art.
Stoppard was asked about the extent to which he plans the elaborate skeins in his plays, skeins not so much (or not only) of plot and narrative but of intellectual collisions and counter-points. Does he have them all worked out, or do they come as he writes – indeed, do they take over and effectively write themselves?
Stoppard said that he might re-write the first page fifty times but that the last page is generally written in one go. At the beginning, he said, the choices are infinite and the story might go anywhere. As it progresses, the choices narrow down and the possible routes are fewer. He revisits his plays sometimes if it becomes clear that the two-way interaction with the audience which a play requires is not flowing well. This is not (we must conclude from the end-results) a matter of dumbing it down but of opening doors and ensuring that the staging-posts are clear enough. He referred to the “rule of three” – if you plant an idea at an early stage to which you intend to return later, make an intermediate reference to it to keep the audience engaged with it.
Lastly, it was good – or at least some consolation to the rest of us – to discover that all this sparkling stuff does not necessarily just fall onto the page. Bernard Levin wrote something to the effect that Bach got his genius from God but that Mozart was God’s pen. I somehow picture Tom Stoppard as the Mozart of the theatre but, by his account, there is a fair amount of perspiration involved as well as inspiration. He sometimes sits up late writing a passage, he said, and goes to bed at 2:00 in the morning well pleased with what he has done. When he looks at it in the morning, he wonders if the Polish au pair had got up in the night and re-written it, so far is it from his impression of the night before. He told us of allegedly final drafts whose every page bore at least one red alteration.
If this sort of thing affects genius, then humbler hacks can feel better. I frequently stare at a blank screen, knowing broadly what I want to say, but with no notion of how to begin, still less what the conclusion will be. I often write and rewrite tentatitve passages, in the hope that a clear idea of the direction will emerge from casting around. And now I know of the Polish au pair and her nocturnal editing, I will not feel quite so bad when last night’s polished prose is this morning’s gibberish.